Writing and Ruminating

Thoughts on writing, reading, and poetry. With the occasional diversion, bien sûr.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

Yesterday's poem was "The World Is Too Much With Us" by William Wordsworth. It was a sonnet so, you know, only 14 lines long. And a lot of the ones before it have been short. So I thought today might be a good time to provide you with something a little longer. Please don't be frightened by it. It's only 46 lines long, and each line only has 8 syllables, so it's still not a massively long piece. And yes, I picked it because my brain made the leap from "The world is too much with us, late and soon" to "Had we but world enough, and time" (from too much world to not enough, and both with some mention of time).

To His Coy Mistress
by Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber* would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt** power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough*** the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.


*Humber: a river that runs through Hull, Marvell's home town
**slow-chapt: chewed or eaten slowly
***Thorough: variant of Through


To summarize, in a dramatic oversimplification:
In the first stanza, which is 20 lines long, the speaker says, in essence, "Look, if I had all the time in the world (literally), I'd woo you slowly. I'd spend centuries simply describing the beauty of your eyes, your forehead, your breasts and the rest of you."

In the second stanza, he says (again, I'm oversimplifying big-time). "The thing is, the clock is ticking, and you're not getting any younger. So I can't take that kind of time to court you, or your virginity will be worm food, and my lust will die with me as well, and it'll be too late." (And yes, I think the potential pun about the worms and her virginity was completely intentional.)

In the final stanza, the speaker reaches his point: "Since you're still young and pretty and seem willing, let's get it on. Let's get freaky, in a frenzy, and the heck with taking it slow. We may not be able to make time stand still, but we can make it race."

Discussion of form:

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter (each line has four iambic feet – taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), and using rhymed couplets. Marvell cleverly uses enjambment from time to time so that the lines run together a little, thus making the poem less sing-songy. (Enjambment, for those unfamiliar with the term, is when a line of poetry doesn't end with a pause, but should be read as part of a larger whole. For example the second couplet would break at the comma, not at the end of the first line, so that it would read as follows:

We would sit down and think which way to walk,
and pass our long love's day.
)

The poem either follows or mocks Petrarchan notions of praise, wherein the courtiers of the 1600s praised women by enumerating their superior attributes. Shakespeare mocked the form in his Sonnet 130, which begins "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun", by saying rather less-than-flattering things about his lady, although he manages to bring the poem to a close in this satisfying couplet: "And yet by heaven I think my love as rare/As any she belied with false compare."

Analysis of the poem and history of the poet

This poem is frequently called one of the carpe diem poems, and is seen as being in favor of "seizing the day." Some scholars question whether this belief was sincerely held by Marvell, who worked for Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan government (and who would have decidedly been opposed to the notion of young virgins making much of time, to borrow a phrase from Robert Herrick's poem, which I featured last week).

However, Marvell is known to have been a lifelong bachelor, a man who liked to drink alone (and drank a lot), and as, in essence, a contrarian. His primary poetic influences were probably French poets, rather than the courtiers that immediately preceded him, although certainly some resemblance to the work of Edmund Spenser can be seen in his work. He became quite popular as a "poet's poet" in the very early 20th century, and was a darling of T.S. Eliot, among others. Whether he intended the poem to be sincere or ironic is, in the end, of little matter. It works well either way, and you may choose as you see fit in your analysis.

Some of the symbolism within the poem that may be useful to know includes the following:

While the speaker says he will wander around by his local river, the Humber, he has his beloved wandering around India and the Ganges, looking for rubies, which were thought to preserve virginity. His reference to the Flood and the conversion of the Jews is a hyperbolic demonstration of the time he should spend wooing her (and that she should spend fending him off). The reference to "Time's wingèd chariot" is a reference to Apollo, whom the Greeks believed pulled the sun around the Earth using his chariot, and this reference ties into the final couplet, wherein Marvell refers to making the sun move faster.

I find myself particularly enamored of the opening line of the poem, "Had we but world enough and time", and I'm not alone in that; that line has been used in titles by a number of authors, including Robert Penn Warren, and the poem has been alluded to or quoted in works ranging from Ursula LeGuin's writing to The Time-Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger to Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. But perhaps my favorite part of the poem is its sexy, conclusion, which is a passionate conclusion if ever one was written:

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.



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